John Earls reviews Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976), the second instalment in the David Bowie boxset series…
Before diving into this second instalment in the planned series of Bowie boxsets, which aim to chronicle his extensive career as never before, it’s prudent to first look at the first outing, Five Years, which hit the racks in 2015. That set made one thing abundantly clear: Bowie’s vaults were going to remain pretty much closed.
Setting The Scene
Initially, there was much hullaballoo about the Re:Call 1 disc in the Five Years set, the series’ first album of unreleased or rare tracks. Until, that is, it became clear that the Re:Call series wasn’t going to add very much to the sum knowledge of Bowie’s work.
It’s a running joke among Bowie collectors that most days see some kind of anniversary reissue for one of his singles. Invariably, the B-side of these reissue 45s is a minutely altered version of on already-existing song. So Starman had a version recorded for Top Of The Pops; Golden Years gained the single edit of Station To Station; Rebel Rebel features its US single version; and on and on, possibly until the end of time… those 7” picture discs all look lovely, but there’s nothing that you wouldn’t really expect. And that proved to be the spirit of the Five Years box’s Re:Call 1. Its 24 tracks consisted of mono single edits, US and German mixes. All were handy minutiae, the tape-op effect inner sleeves were smart and the image of Bowie on the cover was beautiful. However, nowhere on Re:Call 1 was there any sign of actual songs which hadn’t previously been known to exist, or proper versions of the unreleased songs that have been widely bootlegged over the years.
You can understand the reticence of Bowie’s estate to keep such matters hidden, even 45 years on. If he didn’t consider those songs good enough then, why risk tarnishing the mystique by officially revealing that not everything considered for Aladdin Sane was a stone-cold killer?
What the Five Years box really amounted to was a lovely home for everything that Bowie released between 1969 and 1973. Its six parent studio albums and the Santa Monica ’72 live album all looked fabulous. The box’s accompanying book was a lovely compilation of old posters, tickets and photos plus new, albeit brief, essays by producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott. And if few people were going to play the Re:Call 1 disc or the remastered 30th anniversary 2003 mix of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars more than once, ‘it wouldn’t matter too much’.
Except, that is, for one vital slip up on the vinyl version of Five Years. Having forked out £185, buyer didn’t even get a download code. That was unforgivably shoddy and brought into sharp relief the same lack of generosity shown by the rest of the box. Book apart, what were you really going to get to make the first of this new series of boxsets worth buying? Sure, Five Years was hefty enough to turn one of someone’s eyes a different colour if you whacked them around the head with it. But were these boxes going to prove to be (originally, hugely influential) style over (what looked likely to be) deceptively lightweight content?
On To Round Two…
Sadly, Who Can I Be Now? only furthers the sense of missed opportunities. At least Five Years had six studio albums to draw from. Although Who Can I Be Now? boasts nine albums, only three are studio originals – as the title’s brackets emphasise, this box draws from just three years, not five, of Bowie’s career. Presumably it means that the ‘Berlin trilogy’ will be next up.
In the meantime, it’s the transitory period from glam to drug-addled loon, featuring Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station To Station. You also get the David Live and Nassau Coliseum ’76 live albums; the remixed, remastered versions of both David Live and Station To Station; another Re:Call set; and The Gouster.
Ah, yes, The Gouster. Suddenly, here’s something new from the vaults – the soul album Bowie worked on before it became Young Americans. Except that even a cursory glance at Bowie’s recent reissues shows that every song from The Gouster is freely available on previous ‘anniversary’ versions. It’s great to hear it in the order that Bowie intended and the album’s housed in another sumptuous sleeve, but to give The Gouster ‘five stars’ – as one over-aerated broadsheet did – is hooey. They could’ve simply made this box’s Re:Call 2 album a double set and only Bowie obsessives would have noticed.
Re:Call 2 could certainly use something extra, as it only features 11 songs, compared to the first volume’s 24. Seven of those are single mixes, and there are live versions of Rock And Roll With Me and Panic In Detroit, the aforementioned US single version of Rebel Rebel and the Australian single edit of Diamond Dogs. That doesn’t exactly add up to a treasure trove of musical intrigue, does it? Okay, additional ‘new’ songs from the vault are seemingly off the table. But there must be something more exciting than that! Add to the same lack of a download code which made the expense of Five Years a nonsense and Who Can I Be Now? starts to look complacent, even if the unfamiliar “Lie-lie-lie-lie” chorus vocals in the US version of Rebel Rebel are briefly unexpected and thrilling.
The reason for the download code absence is, officially, that you can buy it again, as a separate digital download. Because, of course, having forked out £185 for the vinyl version, you’re naturally inclined to spend another £100 straight away. It’s hard to think of any other boxset which tries that on. If trifling indie bands can afford to include a download code, so too can Parlophone.
Accentuate The Positive
Gripes out of the way, at least the book accompanying Who Can I Be Now? is a solid, 84-page summary of the era, featuring the same mix as the Five Years tome: contemporary press reviews, small articles by producers (Visconti and Harry Maslin) plus photographs by the legendary Terry O’Neill, Geoff MacCormack and others, who had a gift of a subject in Bowie.
Then there are those three albums. If they aren’t as thematically obvious as Ziggy’s alien glam or the outsider art of the Berlin trilogy, then… well, they’re 1970s Bowie so you need to own them, as part of this boxset or not. After stopgap covers album, Pin Ups (included on Five Years), Bowie tried to make a musical based on 1984. That George Orwell’s estate refused was probably for the best, as it’s an idea that sounds part hubris, part Troy McClure from The Simpsons. The songs Bowie considered for his planned musical make up the second side of Diamond Dogs. Both We Are The Dead and the pomposity of Big Brother have dated as badly as any lesser Bowie works, even if 1984 itself remains fabulously odd. It’s the non-themed first side, Rebel Rebel and all, where Diamond Dogs’ true spirit lies. It’s Bowie knocking out perfect pop songs at will – never again would he make actual straightforward pop tunes sound so effortless as Sweet Thing and the album’s title track.
Diamond Dogs’ cover is less sure-footed, a fourth-year mess that looks gloriously stupid back at 12” vinyl size.
The Gouster, In Detail
Then comes The Gouster, the Tony Visconti-produced album made before Bowie decided to hang out with John Lennon. Only three of its seven songs didn’t end up on Young Americans, and one of those is the cheesy, wah-wah heavy John, I’m Only Dancing (Again), where Bowie’s falsetto sounds like a poor TV impressionist trying, and failing, to impersonate him. It made slightly more sense when officially issued at the tail-end of disco in 1979. But as the opening track of a projected ‘soul revue’ album? Not so much…
Much classier is It’s Gonna Be Me, a piano ballad first officially issued as far back as 1990, on a Young Americans reissue. If it’s one-paced and the sax solo’s somewhat greasy, then those negatives are balanced by the inspirational backing vocals, arranged by Luther Vandross, and Mike Garson’s piano, which virtually kicks Bowie out of the way to take over at the song’s climax.
Finally, there’s this box’s title tune, Who Can I Be Now?, which was also officially released on the 1990 reissue. Opening side two of the vinyl edition of The Gouster, it continues in the It’s Gonna Be Me’s sax and gospel vein, though it’s more like a Bruce Springsteen power ballad than the slick soul of Fame or Young Americans – the latter is also present in its eventual studio version.
Young Americans & ‘Station
Eventually released in 1975, the Young Americans album shared four of its eight songs with The Gouster, albeit in different versions, apart from the title track. Young Americans itself and Fame, one of Bowie’s more robotic moments, are the album’s most familiar songs. The cover of The Beatles’ Across The Universe remains a head-scratcher, even given Bowie’s closeness to Lennon at the time. Fine as a mystic period piece, truly soulful it is not. Better are the horn-powered Somebody Up There Likes Me, the noir-ish Win and the funky Fascination.
And then came Station To Station, which marked the introduction of The Thin White Duke – a companion persona to the character that Bowie played in The Man Who Fell To Earth – the one with Golden Years on. You can describe the background to Station To Station, but nobody can capture how strange it is. Some 40 years on, no album blends soul and electronica with such accessibility, while staying downright odd and sinister at its core. As overplayed as the role of drugs are in music, there’s no way that anyone entirely straight could have made these six songs. TVC 15 is as infectious as any song Bowie wrote, but what the hell is it? Synthpop? Gospel? Proto-electro? Like virtually every note of Station To Station, it’s all these things and more.
Bowie loses his mind
The strangeness of Bowie in 1976 is further revealed on Nassau Coliseum ’76. A more compelling listen than the relatively straightforward David Live, even though it was only recorded two years later, Bowie seems transformed, doing very peculiar things indeed to Life On Mars? and a gloriously sinister finale of The Jean Genie. It’s jazz, it’s soul, it’s Bowie scat singing – it certainly isn’t glam rock.
You can hear Bowie lose his mind throughout Nassau Coliseum ’76. What followed next would be even more extreme, as the third boxset will doubtless compile. But just don’t expect it to reveal anything that we didn’t already know about Berlin. Who Can I Be Now? is, ultimately, just about sufficient. And that’s something that Bowie never was.